The “Local Church” as Movement and Source of Controversy

Article ID: JAF2326 | By: Elliot Miller

The LC as a movement can be traced to the conversion of a bright and promising seventeen-year-old, Nee To-sheng (1903-1972), in Fuzhou (or Foochow), Fujian Province, China. “Watchman” Nee (as he became known) wholeheartedly committed his life to the service of the Lord. What Nee lacked in formal training he made up for by voracious reading of as much Christian literature as he could get his hands on, and by hands-on experience in evangelism and church planting. Nee developed a reputation for profound insight into the inner Christian life and the New Testament church life, which he expressed through books and magazines he published after moving to Shanghai in 1927.

One of the earnest Chinese Christians who benefited from Nee’s publications was a young man named Li Changshou (1905-1997), who came to be called Witness Lee. Lee had been raised as a Southern Baptist1 and personally accepted Christ as his Savior in 1925. Lee arranged for Nee to come and speak in 1933 to a church he had planted in his home town of Chefoo, and, desiring his ministry to be fully coordinated or “one” with Nee’s, he moved to Shanghai later that year.

In the following years Nee wrote many books and held regular conferences and trainings for church workers. Nee, Lee, and other workers planted churches up and down China and in Southeast Asia that numbered at least six hundred by the time of the Communist Revolution in 1949. A truly indigenous Chinese movement that came to be known by outsiders as the “Little Flock” (because they sang from aPlymouth Brethren hymnal called Hymns for the Little Flock), they emphasized an experiential knowledge of Christ, the consecrated life, and the recovery of the New Testament pattern for the local church.

Roots in the Plymouth Brethren

Many of the movement’s ideas, such as the plurality of elders as the collective “pastor” of the local church, the abolition of the clergy-laity distinction, and worship centered on the Lord’s Table, were derived from the Exclusive (Plymouth) Brethren, to which both Nee and Lee had ample exposure.

However, Nee considered the divisiveness he observed among the Brethren to be unbiblical, and so, seeking the New Testament ground for the unity of believers, he developed the concept that there should be only one church per city, autonomous from all other local churches, denominations, mission boards, and so forth. Although conceived for the purpose of unity, this has proved to be the most controversial element about the LC, for it is essentially anti-denominational and rejects the legitimacy of any church that meets on any other basis than locality-although the LC embraces all Christians as genuine children of God (see part 4).

When the Communists came into power, severe persecution was unleashed on the LC and Nee was imprisoned in 1952, where he died twenty years later. Nee sent Lee to Taiwan to help ensure that the movement, and the New Testament truths they had “recovered,” would survive.

In Taiwan the movement grew to sixty-five churches with twenty thousand participating “saints” (the LC’s preferred term for believers) by 1955.2 Lee assumed the mantle of leadership, although certain leaders and churches that were part of Nee’s “Little Flock” movement never “became one” with Lee as Lee had become one with Nee, and it was from some of these people that the charge of heresy was first raised against Lee.3

Lee Further Shapes the Movement

During this period Lee more fully developed several teachings that were present in Nee’s ministry, such as the mingling of God and man,4 Christ as the life-giving Spirit (which brought on the charge of modalism-see part 2), and the understanding of the church as the New Jerusalem, as well as devotional practices such as pray-reading and calling on the name of the Lord. All of these were presented as new revelations, not inthe sense of a new truth that goes beyond the Bible, but rather in the sense of a biblical truth that had been lost sight of but that the Spirit has uncovered and that the church has recovered.5 Hence, the movement often refers to itself as “the Lord’s recovery,” since they see themselves as part of a continuing restoration of biblical truth to the people of God that can be traced from the pre-Reformation period through the Protestant Reformation and all the way to the ministries of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee.6

East Meets West

In 1958 Lee traveled to the United States and met with a group of believers in Los Angeles who were hungry to experience the New Testament church. Lee stayed in touch with them and in 1962 he moved to Los Angeles, believing that the Lord was directing him to spread the “recovery” into the United States.

By 1969 there were “local churches” in California, New York, and Texas, but most of the country was untouched by the movement. Lee began to teach that in the Book of Acts the church life was spread through migration, and so groups of LC members began moving to different parts of the country and establishing churches there. With the explosion of the Jesus movement in the 1970s many idealistic young people, as well as spiritually hungry older people, were seeking a greater experience of Christ and also of the New Testament church, and so the ranks of the LC swelled and they became a known quantity at least among Christians in many cities across the United States. Churches were also planted in Canada and on every continent.

Countercult ministry also came into its own in the 1970s, and, as previously noted, the LC did not escape its notice. Looking back on it as objectively as I can, I would have to say that people on both sides behaved badly. Countercult researchers did not make sufficient effort to understand the LC in their own cultural and theological contexts and so failed to assess properly the wide-ranging differences that would naturally exist between an indigenous Chinese Christian movement (even with many youthful American

converts) and typical American evangelicalism. Add to this Lee’s penchant for making controversial statements without immediately offering qualifications, and the stage was set for profound misunderstanding. LC members, for their part, were nothing short of militant in their response to public criticisms. The tactics and rhetoric of their more immature members reinforced the mistaken notion that they were cultic.


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I remember how, after CRI founder Walter Martin had spoken publicly in Anaheim on the LC in October 1977 at a special meeting at Melodyland Christian Center (using research that had been provided him by young but talented cult researchers Bob and Gretchen Passantino, and relying heavily on their interpretation of the teachings of the LC), LC churches and members responded by taking out full-page ads in the Orange County Register contending for the orthodoxy of their beliefs and denouncing “The Bible Answer Man” (who at that time was Martin). I also remember how they overwhelmed the phone lines of the Bible Answer Man program, completely disrupting the show, in order to contend aggressively with Martin about their teachings.

Lee Meets Martin

Things could have turned out very differently. I have in my possession the transcript of a February 21, 1977 meeting between Walter Martin and Witness Lee. Lee had invited Martin to have lunch with him and his wife at their home, and Martin accepted. They had a long and frank discussion in which they got to know one another, discussed their beliefs, recognized each other as brothers in Christ who loved the Lord, and ultimately had very warm Christian fellowship. They concluded that they would follow up with more dialogue about LC teachings. Lee expressed openness to correction and Martin expressed openness to finding there was nothing to correct. They agreed that during this time both sides would cease and desist with the provocative antics.

I remember Martin returning to CRI enthused about the fellowship he’d had with ” brother Lee” and instructing us to withhold comment on the LC until the dialogue ran its course; but I also remember that the research staff was dismayed by this turn of events. We did not trust Lee and we feared that Martin might be taken in. Before long, people on both sides broke the conditions of the “truce” without the knowledge or consent of their respective leaders. Both Martin and Lee assumed the other was responsible for this breach of good faith and so the dialogue collapsed and the “war” resumed, fiercer than ever.

The LC Resorts to Litigation

The LC’s public battle with the countercult community in 1977 extended beyond CRI after two books were published. The Mind Benders was a Thomas Nelson book on cults that included one chapter on the LC. It was written by Jack Sparks, former leader of the Christian World Liberation Front in Berkeley, California, out of which the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP) emerged. Having embraced a form of Eastern Orthodoxy and broken ties with SCP, Sparks was coming from a particular perspective and used the ancient creeds as well as the Bible to refute the cults. The book accused the LC of brainwashing and abusing their members. After a 1978 edition of the book inserted a chapter on Jim Jones’s People’s Temple immediately after the chapter on the LC, and all their attempts to resolve the matter apart from litigation were frustrated, the LC filed a lawsuit in 1981. A settlement agreement was reached in 1983 that resulted in a retraction being published in eighteen American newspapers. Nelson ceased distribution of the book and unsold copies were recalled.

The second book, The God-Men, written by the SCP staff, was not legally challenged by the LC in its 1977 version. But when a heavily revised 1979 German-language edition by Neil T. Duddy and the SCP was published by SchwengelerVerlag (published in English in 1981 by InterVarsity Press), the LC sued Duddy, SCP, and Schwengeler-Verlag. During the nearly five years of pretrial litigation, Duddy left the country and Schwengeler-Verlag never showed up for any of the legal proceedings. On the first day of trial SCP (apparently expecting to lose) declared bankruptcy based on their inability to pay the anticipated judgment, and so they did not show up at trial either.

Although SCP claims that the LC deliberately dragged the trial out so that SCP would be forced into bankruptcy and thus unable to make a defense, the information that came out against SCP in depositions and expert testimony makes it hard to imagine what kind of defense they could have mounted (see part 5). On January 26, 1985, the court ruled that The God-Men was “in all major respects false, defamatory and unprivileged, and, therefore, libelous” and awarded the plaintiffs $11,900,000 in damages, although due to the bankruptcy the plaintiffs only collected about $34,000.

After The God-Men trial was over, the conflict between the LC and the countercult community simmered down and remained at a low boil for many years. The LC’s growth in the United States slowed down significantly, partly due to the persistence of the “cult” label. The movement was rocked in the 1980s by a couple of internal controversies and splits,7 but there were enough committed members to weather these storms. In the meantime, growth picked up in the Far East, especially after the People’s Republic of China became somewhat more tolerant of unregistered religions in the early 1980s. A successful work was launched in the former Soviet Union, and the LC established training centers for their young people in approximately ten different countries. Witness Lee spent the remaining years of his life completing his Life-Study of the Bible series, revising his Recovery Version of the Bible, and creating new materials that clarified the movement’s governing vision8 and restructured their practice of the church life to conform it more closely to the New Testament pattern {e.g., as in 1 Cor. 14 ),9 which has had dynamic effects on their meetings. In 1997 Lee died. Observers in the countercult community wondered if the new generation of leadership would make any modifications or retractions in LC teachings.

A New Lawsuit and a Quest for Evangelical Understanding

On December 14, 2001, the LC, its publishing arm, Living Stream Ministry (LSM), and ninety-seven individual local churches filed suit against Harvest House Publishers and authors John Ankerberg and John Weldon over their 1999 book, Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions (ECNR). Many members of the countercult community were surprised not only that the LC was litigating again after Lee’s death and seventeen years after the God-Men verdict, but also that they were doing so over a one-and-one-half page entry in a 731-page encyclopedia. On January 5, 2006, the Texas Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s decision that denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and ruled for the defendants, declaring that the Court had no business ruling on a “religious” dispute. The LC appealed this ruling to both the Texas Supreme Court in 2006 and the United States Supreme Court in 2007, but both courts decided not to review the case.

Simultaneous with the ECNR lawsuit, the LC was clearly making a concerted effort to build relationships with the larger evangelical community. In 2002 LSM was accepted into the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA). They had already become members of the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) and the Evangelical Christian Credit Union (ECCU). They reached out not only to CRI but also to Fuller Theological Seminary, requesting dialogue and a thorough inquiry into the orthodoxy of their teachings. Fuller agreed to do so, with a favorable outcome for the LC.10 The LC also sought to establish contact with numerous theologians and Christian leaders who they believed were fair minded and might possibly become allies. They developed contacts in the mainstream Christian press, and the coverage they received from those periodicals became more favorable.11

The “Open Letter” to the LC from Evangelical Leaders

Despite such progress, the LC continued to experience cynicism, suspicion, and outright rejection from some quarters. This perception became tangible on January 9, 2007, when a press release announced that “more than 60 evangelical Christian scholars and ministry leaders from seven nations have signed an unprecedented open letter (www.open-letter.org) asking the leadership of the ‘local churches’ and Living Stream Ministry to withdraw unorthodox statements by their founder, Witness Lee. The letter also calls on the movement’s leaders to renounce their decades-long practice of using lawsuits and threatened litigation to respond to criticism and settle disputes with Christian organizations and individuals. “12 Among the prominent leaders and scholars who signed the letter were some former CRI staff and former and current CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL contributors, including E. Calvin Beisner, James Bjornstad, Norman L. Geisler, H. Wayne House, Gordon R. Lewis, Ron Rhodes, and James R. White.

notes

1 It is important to note that neither Lee nor Nee came from a Buddhist background. The mystical leanings in their writings are not traceable to Eastern religions, as has been alleged, but to Western Christian inner life teachers such as Jessie Penn-Lewis, Andrew Murray, and Madame Guyon.

2 The Lord’s Recovery of Experiencing Christ and Practicing the Church Life in Oneness, History, “The Presenr Recovery- One City, One Church (A.D. 1937-Present),” 2, http://www. lordsrecovery.org/history/iv.html.

3 The first theological critic of Lee was James Chen, who had been appointed by Nee as one of two elders in Hong Kong. Interestingly, his charge was one that we have never heard in America, that Lee was teaching Arianism. He based this on the fact that Lee called the incarnate Christ a creature. Lee did indeed teach that Christ is a creature with respect to His humanity, but he also taught that, with respect to His deity, Christ is the Creator of the Universe. This pattern, in which Lee makes radical statements and balances them elsewhere in his teaching, only to have his critics seize on his radical statements without factoring in the balancing statements, has continued to the present day. In fact, this theme pretty well sums up the balance of this article, insofar as it deals with theology.

4 The LC has been careful to define mingling in a way that does not suggest a change in the essential nature of God or man. See the sidebar, “‘Mingling’-Was There Ever a Better Word?” Affirmation and Critique 1, 3 (July 1996), 31, 62.

5 “The Present Recovery- One City, One Church (A.D. 1937-Present),” 19.

6 For a thorough explanation of their beliefs in this regard, see the entire History section at the Web site, The Lord’s Recovery of Experiencing Christ and Practicing the Church Life, http://www. lordsrecovery.org/history/index.html.

7 Critics cite these controversies as corroboration that the LC is cultic, but in looking into these matters we have found corroboration only for the biblical doctrine of sin’s ongoing presence among believers (e.g., James 3:2; 1 John 1:8). In other words, the movement has not been immune to the carnal behaviors that have plagued and divided Christian works throughout church history. Perhaps in some future issue we can address these matters, but they go beyond our scope here, which is focused on the allegations contained in the “open letter” to the LC and LSM (see below).

8 See, e.g., Witness Lee’s series of eleven Elders’ Training books, including Book 2, The Vision of the Lord’s Recovery (Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1985).

9 See, e.g., Witness Lee, The Ministry of the New Testament Priests of the Gospel (Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1998).

10 See Hank Hanegraaff, Gretchen Passantino, and Fuller Theological Seminary, The Local Churches: “Genuine Believers and Fellow Members of the Body of Christ” (Fullerton, CA:DCI’ Press, 2008), 29- 32.

11 See, e.g., “Loose Cult Talk ,” editoria l, Christianity Today, March 2006, 27 (http://www.christianitytoday.col11!ct/2006/marchI15.27.html); Ken Walker, “Former Local Church Critics Change Stance,” Charisma, June 2009, 20 (http://www.charismamag.comlindex. php/news!207 41-former-loca l-church-critics-change-stance).

12 ” Leading Evangelical Scholars Call on ‘Local Churches’ to Renounce Doctrines, Legal Attacks,” press release, January 9, 2007, hup:!/wwvl.open-letter.org!pdf/OL_PressRelease.pdf.